Editorial: Toughening Abuse Laws

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Boston MA]
July 27, 2003

"They let children be raped. Their punishment: NOTHING."

So read the sign of a protester in Boston after the Massachusetts attorney general issued a devastating report on sexual abuse of children in the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese but concluded that no criminal charges could be brought against church officials. Given what the report had to say, it's difficult not to feel the same outrage.

Victims of abuse have a right to be angry and frustrated. They can and should put their anger to good use by working to enact stronger state laws to protect children, including the elimination of statutes of limitation in sexual assault cases. That may not do much to ease their personal pain, but it could go a long way toward making sure that future generations aren't sacrificed on the same altar.

According to the Massachusetts report, more than 1,000 people may have been abused by clergy and others in the archdiocese since the 1940s. Attorney General Tom Reilly said the abuse was "so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable." According to the report, church officials - in particular Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop in December as a result of the scandal - bore the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

But because Massachusetts had weak child-protection laws during most of the last 60 years, no charges can be filed against the bishops who stood by and did nothing as children were assaulted time and again.

Reilly deserves to be commended for his investigation. Unlike too many other attorneys general and district attorneys, including those in Wisconsin, he had the courage and the compassion to look for answers about the magnitude of the scandal in his state. To be sure, only a relative handful of clergy across the country have preyed on children, but one is still left wondering what more thorough investigations in other archdioceses might find.

Sadly, Reilly determined - and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled - that criminal laws cannot be applied retroactively even in cases such as these, in which victims are so traumatized that it takes them years to face the truth of what happened to them. The civil courts are still available to victims, and victims are making and should make full use of them. It is also true that U.S. bishops have taken some steps toward addressing the scandal.

Still, it seems clear that without the force of law and public pressure, some church officials will be reluctant to come to grips with the scandal. Which is why all states need to toughen laws governing the sexual abuse of children.

Such legislation has been introduced in Wisconsin, but it may not go far enough. Legislators might find it instructive to consider the Boston report and to ask themselves how far they need to go to make sure that children in Wisconsin are provided the protection they deserve.


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